Jesus is not alone on the cross. There are three men and three crosses – all surrounded by armed soldiers and a milling crowd. Some in the crowd watch in silence; but others shout like fans at a football game, inspired by their cheerleaders. In the uproar one of the dying men joins the crowd in shouting at Jesus, but the other man defends him and says, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
What does it mean, to ‘remember’? There’s a difference between what the word meant to the people of the Scriptures, and what it means to us today. We think of a ‘memory’ as a thought we carry around in our own heads; and we think of ‘remembering’ as the process of searching our brains for things said and done yesterday or long ago. But for the Hebrews, memory was communal (shared by everyone through story-telling); and concrete (it was not a mere mental exercise, but restored a living relationship with the original people and activities).
And so in Jewish homes the Sabbath candles were lit every Friday evening; the Passover story was re-told each spring. In the early years, the tribes gathered for festivals, and remembered God and their ancestors around the campfire. In later years, congregations gathered in their synagogues, not just to hear the stories but to watch them come to life in their midst.
In the Old Testament, God is usually the one who remembers. Yes, when the Jews were exiled in Babylon they sang, By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion, but such nostalgic memories are far fewer than verses which speak of God remembering.
Again and again it is God who asks his people to remember – because they may have forgotten, but God always holds the memory. If God remembers someone, then that person is alive in God…. If God remembers his covenant with Israel, then the whole people is alive in God…. If God remembers an event, then it still has power in people’s lives. God, who dwells beyond time, keeps memory from the past alive in the present, and will keep memory alive into the future.
The first Christians had this same understanding of what it means to remember. The memory of Jesus was held by the community, and speaking that memory in the community brought him back into their midst.
So at first they told and re-told the stories of Jesus in their own lives – these stories became the Gospels.
When they gathered for the Eucharist, they looked for the living Jesus to come again, as he had promised. Within a century, they were walking the way of his cross each Lent and baptizing new Christians on the night before Easter – these actions became our liturgies.
So when Jesus told his disciples, Do this in remembrance of me…he was not asking them to do something that would remind them of him – he was not asking them to keep a memory, growing ever dimmer, of his presence long ago. No, he was telling them that through the power of the Holy Spirit, he would be still be present in their midst.
(By the middle ages, theories would develop about what happens to make Jesus present in the bread and wine. Most of us have heard the theories: Does the bread become Christ’s real body? (The Catholic Transubstantiation) Does Christ become present through our heartfelt remembering? (The Protestant Memorial) But the theory that’s always made the most sense to me is this: the Eucharist is a mystery of time. It is not the bread that is changed, nor the wine, nor even the hearts of the people – it is time itself that is changed. Through the power of God’s living Spirit everything – bread, wine, and people – are drawn together into God’s time.)
In God’s eyes, all will be alive in him: For me, the best example of what Jesus meant when he said, Do this in remembrance of me is found in a movie made back in 1984: ‘Places in the Heart.’
The last scene of the movie takes place in church. The camera watches as communion is passed in the pews, given by each character to their neighbor. At first we are caught up in the generosity of sharing; but gradually, we realize that the people receiving communion are both the living and the dead. Those who have died in the movie are still alive in the moment of communion. It is as if the camera is God’s eye, looking upon his beloved people, who are all alive in God.
When the man on the other cross said, ‘Jesus, remember me’, somehow he knew that Jesus, like God, could hold his memory forever. Somehow this man trusted that in Jesus’ remembering they would be together, side by side – in that place, that time, in that time beyond time – where God is always alive, always holding his people to his heart.
This is the Biblical understanding of memory: The living God, who dwells beyond time, keeps memory alive. God is the One who remembers – the One who holds time in his hands, the One who dwells beyond time, and the One who has the power to bring us into his time.
Jesus, remember me: For Christians, the man beside Jesus points the way to the God who dwells beyond time. Whenever we repeat that man’s words, or sing Jesus, remember me, we are joining in a prayer of profound trust: we trust that Jesus knows the way to the God of life, and that Jesus will go with us on the road to that life.
To hear the Taize chant, ‘Jesus, remember me,’ go to
Preached on November 24, 2013
at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church, Los Osos